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One step down, two steps forward - 96%

Noktorn, June 8th, 2006

Well, after my life-altering experience with the previous Morbid Angel album 'Altars Of Madness', it's no surprise that I immediately purchased the rest of their rather extensive catalogue. Quite logically, I eagerly anticipated this album, often having heard of it being the best of the classic Morbid Angel trilogy ('Altars Of Madness', 'Blessed Are The Sick', and 'Covenant'). As one of the most revered albums in death metal history, routinely nearing the top of most lists of great metal albums, my standards were quite high. Unreasonable? Perhaps. Understandable? Certainly.

Even in the very first contact with this album, I realized that something had fundamentally changed with the band. A cursory look at the album cover will tell you all you need to know. While the art of 'Altars Of Madness' was professional but still had an endearing, amateur quality, 'Blessed Are The Sick' was much darker and, in a way, more serious. The comic-book style tortured faces had been replaced by a beautiful and grotesque painting that still seems to perfectly embody the spirit of this album. That spirit being the inherent sickness of the human condition, all of our excess and sin wrapped up in a package of flesh. The art flawlessly conveys it, with an unbroken chain of throbbing, nude humans drifting into a demon's horrific yet sensual maw.

In a way, the concepts of this album are direct reversals of those of the previous. Where 'Altars Of Madness' was a celebration of the metaphysical power granted by Satan, this album is quite worldly, celebrating sin not for it's strike against god, but for pleasure in and of itself. 'Altars' reveres strength; 'Blessed' reveres the weakness and infirmity of mankind, drowning on its disease and mortality. While Satan is the protagonist of 'Altars', crafting Morbid Angel into willing tools of his bidding, the band seizes control of its own destiny in 'Blessed', only worshipping a pantheon of H.P. Lovecraft's mythical demiurges for their own motives, not for an actual reverence of those powers greater than them. Even on the very first true song, David Vincent expresses is directly and succinctly: 'I am lord I take command!'

Speaking of songs, the album opens on an intriguing note, with an ambient 'Intro'. This is quite important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, this is the first step into ambience for Morbid Angel, where such experimentation would become a staple of their later albums. One should notice how every single Morbid Angel album after 'Blessed Are The Sick' has at least one if not more small intermezzos of this type. Secondly and more importantly, this represents one of the first major experiments in atmosphere in the history of death metal. While introductions and intermissions of this sort are now commonplace, this was at one point a very large departure from death metal, which had still mostly been concentrating on formulating precisely what the still-new genre of death metal would be composed of. Finally, this underlines the main emphasis of this album, that being atmosphere. While the first release had been one of sonic violence, 'Blessed Are The Sick' shows Morbid Angel functioning as a more cohesive whole.

One of the things that was such a shock to me upon hearing this LP was the immediate realization that Morbid Angel had entirely changed as a musical entity. While 'Altars Of Madness' was lightning-quick and perpetually overdosing on enthusiasm, 'Blessed Are The Sick' is far more professional and musically even. One might draw an aeronautical analogy, in which 'Altars Of Madness' is the speedy, agile fighter, while 'Blessed Are The Sick' is a slower, more deliberate, and, in some ways, more devastating bomber. One can hear this as early as the second track, 'Fall From Grace', with it's slow, menacing riff draped over bass-heavy drum work. Morbid Angel seems to relish in a build-up of this sort throughout the album, dedicating a full forty-eight seconds to this tension-laced uphill climb before the blasting begins on this particular composition. The overall tempo of this album is slightly lower than that of the previous, though with some clear exceptions; as Trey Azagthoth says on the linear notes of the re-release, 'Brainstorm' is faster than anything that occurred on 'Altars Of Madness'.

The production of this album is an obvious improvement over 'Altars Of Madness'. The sound now has a genuine low-end and has lost most of the original's thin, screeching production. While the textures of the individual instruments are diminished, it makes up for it in a thicker sound, appropriate for the general atmosphere of the album. Of particular note would be the drum production, which would set the standard for death metal for years to come. If one listens carefully to the sound of the bass drum, one can hear that same flat, wet, thudding tone like a hammer on flesh repeated in future albums. The lack of triggering makes everything sound more organic, especially when combined with the newly churning riffs that define this album. Overall, one could describe the production as 'fleshy', as most of the instruments have a very warm, soft, but still heavy, tone.

Performance wise, the band improves manyfold over their debut. The guitar duo of Trey Azagthoth and Richard Brunelle plays similarly to their debut, with the obvious exceptions of differing melodies and technical evolution. One of the central differences is a larger experimentation with the rhythm of the guitars, such as on 'Blessed Are The Sick/Leading The Rats', somewhat resembling the off-kilter groove of earlier classic 'Maze Of Torment'. The guitar tone, while not as sharp and venomous as that heard on the previous release is quite capable, with a similarly organic tone as the drums. Solos are not quite as manic in their intensity, although still as discordant as before. They, like most of the album, are more cohesive and studied as a whole, dropping the endless barrage of 32nd notes and savage abuse of the tremolo bar in favor of more dynamic rhythm and melody. Bass, like the first album, is mostly inaudible and follows the guitar, although this is not to the detriment of the album as a whole.

At this point, bassist/vocalist David Vincent now had a handle on his vocal stylings. A large change from the throaty rasps of 'Altars', he now adopts a simple yet unique growl. Interestingly, this seems to be one of the earlier examples of a technique that would be popularized in later years; namely, where melody is approximated through a less or more guttural approach, corresponding to a higher or lower pitch, respectively. This would later be used by vocalists such as Lord Worm of Cryptopsy or Mike Majewski of Devourment to great effect. Rounding out the squad is the inimitable Pete 'Commando' Sandoval, who's drumming is still world-renowned. One of the most distinctive features of Sandoval's drumming is his exquisite ability to match a guitar riff with his own rhythm pattern, and it is on this album where that skill takes center stage. Yes, his mechanical blasts and double bass are mighty impressive (the blasting on 'Fall From Grace' is terrifying), but when he slows down his performance moves into the section of sublime. Take the vivid, shuffling bass drums and hi-hats of 'Rebel Lands', or the grim, rumbling toms of 'Blessed Are The Sick/Leading The Rats'. The sound of his drums has also improved, with a clearer, thicker tone overall, fitting the increased production budget on this release.

Lyrically, Satan has been entirely left behind, as well as most anti-Christianity. No, the violence in this album is directed at the very humanity that Morbid Angel at once seeps in and despises, not unlike a sort of post-coital loathing, where one is filled with both absolute love and absolute disgust. Of course, some of their past remains (the savage 'Unholy Blasphemies' contains charming lines such as 'Ghouls who pray the death of god/Destroy Jehovah's church/Vomit upon the cross/And burn the book of lies', but overall, the album concentrates on the human experience. One might compare this progression to the Renaissance, where divine themes were rudely shunted aside to focus on the human experience. Often the lyrics express a joy of freedom and sickness, best expressed in the lines of 'Blessed Are The Sick/Leading The Rats', such as 'So many years, my seed condemned/Now free to soar!' or 'World of sickness/Blessed are we to taste/This life of sin'. Vincent makes no qualms about it: weakness and decadence are the whole of the law. Improvement will not occur, so one might as well make haste with the world's downfall. Humanity is fucked.

It would be somewhat amiss to speak of standout tracks, as they all retain a unique identity. However, if it came down to personal favorites, I would nominate thundering opener 'Fall From Grace' and it's ominous development, 'Day Of Suffering’s utter chaotic misanthropy, and the horror of 'Unholy Blasphemies'. However, the champion of this album is by far 'Blessed Are The Sick/Leading The Rats'. I cannot stress enough how well this song functions, not only upon it's own merits (which it certainly does), but as a mission statement for the album, as well as a flawless example of mid-paced death dirges in the early 90s that would be upheld by artists such as Autopsy and Obituary. As an adjunct, I would also submit 'Desolate Ways'. This acoustic piece is both heart-wrenchingly beautiful and deliciously decadent. Like an island in a sea of chaos, it functions as an anchor to beauty without sickness. I'd also like to commend Richard Brunelle on his guitar playing; anyone who has attempted it knows how difficult it is to replicate his stunningly clean performance.

Originally, I didn't particularly enjoy 'Blessed Are The Sick'. I found it lacking the spirit of 'Altars Of Madness', and musically not as direct. These are both legitimate complaints on my part. However, the latter is simply a matter of progression, (genuine, not artificial) which one should not antagonize an artistic piece over. The former, however, I still view as the album's central flaw. While the LP works very well and is by all means a brilliant piece of art, it inherently lacks the beauty and enthusiasm of the first release. While one might say that it was impossible to maintain that sort of passion for more than one album (which may very well be true) that does not mitigate the fact that the pure, balls-out passion of 'Altars Of Madness' is not present on this release. However, it has grown on me over time, and I now view it for what it really is: a beautiful and brilliant, if not flawless, album.

When all is said and done, one can see the leap that occurs between the first two releases of Morbid Angel. While I view the debut to be superior, I thoroughly enjoy this album, and agree that it should be recognized in the pantheon of great artistic achievements throughout history. Truly a brilliant work, and not one that shall ever be forgotten.